Comparative AND Reconstructive Method

Wed Aug 4 17:13:26 UTC 1999

In a message dated 8/3/99 7:27:07 PM, kurisuto at writes:

>   As a matter of terminology, the kind of argumentation you propose
>here falls outside the Comparative Method.  It's true that we do sometimes
>fall back on this kind of external guesswork, but it's the sort of special
>pleading you make to bolster some assumption which you need for your

It is more common than such a statement would lead us to think.

>   In any case, I'd be really careful in assuming that phonological
>rules always apply across entire classes of categories.  It's true that
>things often do work this way, but they don't always.

Completely agree.  If they often do work this way, then the presence
of some parts of such a pattern makes the occurrence of other parts of the
same pattern more probable, to some marginal degree.
That is all I intended, and all I would claim.
No set of evidence is ever completely conclusive in any absolute sense.
Of course not.  But...
We do use "circumstantial evidence" in all aspects of life.

>   Around 12 years ago, I was interviewing a speaker of the South
>Midlands dialect area of American English.  In this dialect, /I/ > /i/ for
>some speakers, and /U/ > /u/ for some speakers.  I assumed that if the
>speaker had one rule, she'd have the other as well; I figured that the
>general rule was "high lax vowels become tense".  To my great surprise,
>she had the second rule but not the first.  There was no denying what I
>was hearing; my assumptions about the expected symmetry within the system
>were just plain wrong.
>   I've fallen into this same kind of trap plenty of other times.
>There are so many cases of beautiful symmetry and parallelism in
>phonological systems that it's an ongoing challenge to remember that
>things don't always work out so neatly.  Even in the Japanese case that
>you give, there are recent loan words (e.g. tiishatsu "T-shirt") to mess
>up the nice symmetry of the system.

There are actually many older Sino-Japanese loans too
"sha sho shu she" all exist in such loans.
(Actually, I did NOT make the claim implied here,
I was not claiming that "shi" MUST derive historically
only from *si, merely that there is an asymmetrical sub-system,
which happens to be native not in loan words, in which it does.)

>> One of them I am quite certain is to develop both articulatory and
>> acoustic "spaces", relative "distances" between different articulations
>> and different acoustic effects, so that when attempting to judge
>> likelihood of cognacy of pairs of words, we can judge similarity
>> by degrees, not by yes/no dichotomies.  (These will partly depend
>> on the general typology of the sound systems of the languages
>> concerned, they will not be completely universal, but they will
>> also not be completely idiosyncratic.)

>The Comparative Method is concerned with the reconstruction of categories,
>_not_ the phonetic values which might have been the realization of those
>categories.  This is a very important point.  When we talk about
>Proto-Indo-European */a/, we don't mean "the phonological category in
>Proto-Indo-European which had the phonetic realization [a]"; we mean "the
>hypothetical PIE category which gave rise to the Sanskrit category /a/,
>the Latin category /a/, etc."

Agreed in part, in part not.
We DO and MUST mean not merely something which represents a set of
correspondences, we DO and MUST mean something WHOSE PHONETIC
SUBSTANCE could have given rise to the observed attestation.
(We can easily make errors, as reconstructing c-hachek (English "ch")
because it occurs in a wide range of descendant languages, where it might
have gotten there by drift in each descendant separately, and the actual form
of the proto-language had *ky for all of these.)

Therefore the following is not valid:

>As far as the Comparative Method is concerned, we could designate that
>category with an integer, e.g. "Category 27".  */a/ is just a convenient
>label or nickname for it.

Re the following, the hypothesized proto-form should be much more than
merely a guess, it should be a highly-educated hypothesis or estimate,
resting not on "intuition" but on educated reasoning and experience.

>Along with that label comes a built-in guess
>about what the prehistoric phonetic value for that category might have
>been, but this is _just_ a guess; the actual phonetic value is beyond the
>reach of the Comparative Method.

Whether one calls it "Comparative Method" or not,
Calvert Watkins is absolutely correct, that the RESULTS of the valid
application of the method must in general aim at a reconstructed language
FROM WHICH one can derive the hypothesized descendants,
(of course preferably by mechanisms of language change
which are known to occur, though we must allow for discovering new ones).

The substance of the reconstructions DOES matter.

If some wish to call this "Reconstructive Method", and distinguish it from
a very narrow sense of the "Comparative Method",
then they will logically be forced to CEASE applying the term
"comparative method" to much of what we traditionally have called that.
The "comparative method" includes, ideally, the "reconstructive" aspects also.
There is no point in trying to define it to exclude those,
because they are part and parcel of the best comparative practice.

Quite the contrary, making EXPLICIT that comparative method includes
reconstructive method, and is NOT mere superficial comparison,
is quite consistent with what many traditionalists maintain.

Making this explicit allows us to IMPROVE AND EXTEND the totality
of our comparative & reconstructive methods.
Hiding it under the rug blocks progress,
and misrepresents to students what we think know and how we know it.

Lloyd Anderson
Ecological Linguistics

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